People were bringing little children to Him in order that He might touch them; and the disciples spoke sternly to them. But when Jesus saw this, He was indignant and said to them, “Let the little children come to me; do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it.” And He took them up in His arms, laid His hands on them, and blessed them.
St. Matthew 19.13-15
Nicholas was born of a rich and noble family, in the city of Patara, in the country we now know as Turkey, in the late third century.
When he was still very young, both his father and mother died, leaving him a sizeable fortune. As the years passed, he eventually decided to devote his life, and to give all he had, to the service of God, doing good works and acts of kindness directed toward those in need. It is said that he secretly helped very poor people, by putting gifts of gold coins through their windows, doing all of this at night, when they were asleep and no one could see him.
At a certain point, Nicholas decided to journey to the Holy Land, an extremely perilous trip by sea, even in the best of circumstances. While on his trip, a terrible storm arose, but, by his prayers, Nicholas is said to have saved the already sinking ship. It’s for this reason that he is venerated all over the world as a patron saint of sailors.
When he returned home, he was elected Bishop of the city of Myra. As Bishop, he devoted himself with even greater commitment to the living of a holy life, giving himself to prayer and acts of love.
Nicholas was especially beloved by children whom he often gathered around him, teaching them about God’s word, and giving them many little gifts. All of this was at a time when the church was suffering persecution, at the beginning of the fourth century. Nicholas did not escape from this, eventually being taken from his home, and sent into exile, where he was imprisoned. While in prison, he suffered many hardships, including hunger, thirst, cold and loneliness; he was kept in chains, and was often tortured.
Mercifully, when the emperor Constantine ascended to the throne, all Christians who had been imprisoned because of their faith were released. Among them, was Nicholas. He returned to Myra, where he lived for many years as Bishop, until his death on December 6, in the year 342. His remains are now enshrined in the town of Bari, in Italy.
Because of his enormous popularity and his singular devotion, soon after his death, it became the custom for a man to impersonate him on his special day. This man would don a white beard, put on the red vestments of a bishop, and go through town engaging himself in acts of kindness and generosity to children.
In Holland, even to this very day, Sinter Klaas visits children on the eve of December 6. He questions them on their Catechism, he listens to their prayers, he asks if they’ve been good, and then, after encouraging them to live according to the teachings of Christ and urging them to get themselves ready for a holy Christmas, he distributes candy and fruit, and then departs, with a loving farewell.
The tradition of Sinter Klaas eventually was brought by the Dutch to New York, in the new world, and, over time, that tradition became mingled with the English tradition of Father Christmas. While that resulted in the Bishop’s vestments being replaced with secular clothing, several things were not changed: the bright red color of his clothing was retained; the name Sinter Klaas became Santa Claus; and, as we all know, the idea of associating him with gift-giving, especially at night when no one could see him, also remained firmly in place.
Over time, he also gained features that had been the property of Norway’s “Christmas Man”: he was given a home and a factory at the North Pole; and a sleigh with reindeer became his mode of transportation.
It is right that Christians should remember him as we approach the Christmas season, and, that we should take inspiration from his own example of holiness of living, and of self-less devotion.
— from Festivals and Commemorations by Phillip Pffateicher
and other sources
Heavenly Father, shepherd of your people, we thank you for your servant Nicholas, who was faithful in the care and nurture of your flock; and we pray that, following his example and the teaching of his holy life, we may by your grace grow into the full stature of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. AMEN
— Pastor Stickley